Galaxy S10 won't save Samsung innovation, but folding Galaxy X, F, Fold or Flex could

Commentary: Samsung may bank on foldable phone success, but rivals are close behind.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Jessica Dolcourt
6 min read

Don't count on the upcoming Galaxy S10 to be Samsung's innovation darling. Leave that to the company's first foldable phone, which Samsung is widely expected to show off in all its working glory. Rumored to be called the Galaxy X, Galaxy F, Galaxy Fold or even Galaxy Flex, the first foldable phone from the largest global phone brand has the potential to kick off a tidal wave of renewed interest in phones at a time when sales are leveling off.

The Galaxy S10 that's set to launch Feb. 20 in San Francisco is expected to look fairly similar to the Galaxy S9, at least in terms of being a traditionally shaped phone with slim bezels and a large screen. Rumors suggest that the Galaxy S10 will have a face unlocking camera, the first "ultrasonic" in-screen fingerprint reader and a "bright night" camera mode for low-light photos (similar to what Huawei phones and the Pixel 3 phones have). 

If the rumors are true, this is a good features haul, though not extraordinary on the whole when you compare the checklist with other phones. For example, Apple's Face ID is already two years old and versions of all these rumored S10 features have long appeared on competing Android phones, with varying degrees of success. Phones from rivals like  Huawei , Google and Apple are catching up or have already outpaced Samsung in a few key areas.

But with the foldable phone, Samsung will have a head start on them all.

Samsung's competitors are innovating hard

Huawei's Honor View 20 is more eye-catching than today's Samsung phone.


Samsung is currently the largest phone brand on the planet by sales volume, but it's hardly sitting pretty. Phones sales are slowing down, with even trillion-dollar Apple warning investors that it hasn't sold as many new iPhones as expected. Samsung needs its Galaxy S10 to impress if it's going to keep its place at the top. 

Does Samsung really have anything to fear? Huawei, which ousted Apple to become number-two, is in a tight spot. The company, which is also one of the biggest names in telecommunications equipment, has been banned by governments over fears of spying for the Chinese government, despite Huawei's insistence that it adheres to local laws wherever it operates. Since last year, massive carrier and retailer deals dried up and two of the company's employees have been arrested

Although Huawei's business is imperiled, the handsets themselves are on the rise. The Huawei phones we've seen since last CES have outpaced Samsung's flagship models with three rear cameras, like the Huawei P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro, an in-screen fingerprint reader and flashy finishes and colors, like the stunning Honor View 20 that's the first standout phone of 2019. 

Honor View 20's hypnotic colors will make your jaw drop

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(Summer's midprice Galaxy A9 has three rear cameras, but Samsung has yet to launch a premium phone with the same technology. Then again, Google's top-scoring flagship Pixel 3 retains one rear lens.)

Huawei, too, edged Samsung its AI camera agenda, and introduced photography software that closes the gap with some iPhone features -- like dramatic lighting for selfie photos, and Huawei's version of Apple's "Animoji" that avoids the pitfalls of Samsung's extremely creepy AR Emoji.

Samsung heads into 2019 with the advantage of rock-solid partner support, but flagging momentum. After its third quarter ended in October, Samsung said in a press release that it "achieved solid sales of flagship models" and that "total smartphone shipments remained flat due to decreased sales of mid- to low-end products." Even though Samsung expects sales to rise in 2019, this is hardly confidence-stirring stuff.

Meanwhile, Huawei's sales have grown despite an almost total US shutout (the US is the world's second-largest phone market after China), and its devices are innovating faster. At the end of December, Huawei announced that it sold 200 million units across all its divisions, including the mid-level Honor line.

The Galaxy S10 arrives Feb. 20 but the photos are here now

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It's into this mix that the Galaxy S10 will answer the ultimate question of whether or not Samsung can catch up in terms of shelf appeal. There's also Apple to contend with. When CEO Tim Cook unveiled the iPhone X in 2017, it was a radically redesigned device that introduced cutting-edge technology like Face ID, a 3D front-facing camera that maps your face for secure unlocking and gesture controls. 

The Galaxy S10 is more likely to stay the course, acting as the anchor while Samsung pours all the risk into making its foldable phone surprising and new.

Snapdragon 855 demos hint at what you could do on Galaxy S10, Pixel 4

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Foldable Galaxy X: The ace up Samsung's sleeve

That something "new" Samsung's betting on to carry it through 2019 will likely be another phone altogether. Samsung has committed to a foldable phone, rumored to be called the Galaxy X or Galaxy F, by the first half of the year. The design is considered the future.

Foldable phones are poised to shake up a phone industry based on flat, bricklike handsets. While only one foldable phone currently exists, the Royole FlexPai, which is currently on backorder, the new designs are already credited with ushering in new ways to use your most personal device. 

Samsung's foldable phone is here, with brand-new One UI for Android

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Phones that open up into larger screen tablets will create more space for people to engage with apps, videos and games. But, as with tablets, they also have the potential to make multitasking easier, or split a screen to give you controls on one side and a viewing area on the other. 2017's ZTE Axon M didn't have a bendable screen -- it connected two separate displays with a hinge -- it showcased different ways to use two displays back-to-back, including a mirror mode that projected the same thing on both screens.

ReadCES 2019 shows the foldable phone revolution will be awkward, but essential

Samsung isn't alone here. Just last week, Xiaomi teased a radical foldable phone design that folds in two places, like a trifold wallet.  LG , Huawei and others have also said they're developing foldable prototypes. Motorola is rumored to resurrect the Razr with a "foldable" design of its own. TCL, which makes BlackBerry and Alcatel phones, TVs and panels to sell to other devicemakers, also said it'd make a foldable device in 2020. Here's the scoreboard for all the foldable phone makers with skin in the game.

"2019 is about 5G and full display designs," Wayne Lam, an analyst at IHS, told CNET's Roger Cheng. "I would say the market won't get really interesting until 2020."

With Google's support for foldable Android products, you can bet these designs will proliferate.

"Unless the foldable device is supported by solid operating system and software support, a foldable phone risks going into history as a gimmick," said Werner Goertz, a senior director and analyst at Gartner.

CES 2019: Hands-on with the foldable, bendable Royole FlexPai phone

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5G-ready phones are even more important 

If the foldable "Galaxy X" phone is the party animal of Samsung's phone business in 2019, Samsung's first 5G phones are the buttoned-up blazer types that will get the job done. 


Samsung showed off its prototype 5G phone at CES 2019.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung has already pledged four US phones in 2019 to take advantage of the first networks to offer immense 5G speeds with almost zero latency: one each for Verizon and Sprint, and two for AT&T. The hope in having these devices ready even before the networks get going is to make the transition from 4G to 5G networks quicker and smoother than the shift from 3G to 4G.

Read: 6 things you should know about Samsung's 5G phones for 2019

Since the first 5G devices will cost more than their 4G counterparts, expect these handsets to look more like today's Galaxy S9 than a wacky phone that folds down the center. Samsung won't double up its risk -- or increase the price of an already expensive foldable phone -- by putting them both together at first.

In fact, rumors point to a 5G variant of the Galaxy S10. The tech giant did show a 5G prototype Samsung phone at its CES booth -- behind glass -- but wouldn't tell us which carrier it's destined for, or how its final design might change.

Foldable phones might not pan out, or it could take years for the industry to hone the materials, apps and overall look that works best. But 5G phones are a sure bet that will allow Samsung to remain on the forefront as networks slowly replace LTE with 5G. This transition will take time, and the first 5G phones are expected to be costly

In the meantime, the 4G Galaxy S10 will be waiting, and so will its fiercest rivals.

Samsung declined to comment on this story.

From Apple to Samsung: 5G phones available right now

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Originally published Jan. 13 at 4:00am PT.
Update: Jan. 14 at 8:50am PT.
Update: Jan. 27 at 4 am PT.

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